From the time his mock-Shakespearean comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” burst onto the world stage in the 1960s, it was clear Tom Stoppard was a writer to be reckoned with, given his gleaming intellectual acumen and inventive theatricality.
But it wasn’t until many successful plays later, when his “Arcadia” arrived in 1993, that Stoppard gave us in one script a seamless meshing of his wit and erudition with soulful poignancy and pathos.
This masterwork by our age’s myriad-minded playwright (to borrow Coleridge’s description of Shakespeare) is so cerebrally challenging, and funny, and heart-rending, repeated viewings are practically essential to take it all in.
Seattle Public Theater’s modest-sized, graceful airing of “Arcadia” allows one to eagerly revisit Stoppard’s century-hopping English-lit mystery caper, sex farce, scientific puzzle, love story and philosophical rumination, or to drink in its unique elixir for the first time.
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On Craig Wollam’s compact dual-purpose set of the sunroom in a British manor house, director Kelly Kitchens enlists actors who can deliver Stoppard’s eloquently agile dialogue briskly but articulately, and transmit the nuances of emotion beneath the sparkling cascades of dialogue.
In alternate scenes set in 1809 at the fictional country estate of Sidley Park, Izabel Mar impresses as the effervescent and mathematically precocious 13-year-old Thomasina, and Trevor Young Marston excels as her keenly attentive tutor Septimus — whose affairs with Thomasina’s vain mother, Lady Croom (Emily Goodwin), and the wife of foolish visiting poet Ezra Chater (Brandon Ryan), are vastly complicating his life.
Jumping back and forward to the present day, we watch dueling academic sleuths Hannah (a wry, wary Alyson Scadron Branner) and hyper-arrogant Victor (Evan Whitfield, whose English accent is dodgy but comic instincts are spot-on) spark over theories about Lord Byron’s possible involvement in some alleged doings at Sidley Park. (We know the truth, they don’t yet.) And the current Croom heirs, including computer whiz Valentine (Trick Danneker), his lusty sister (Jocelyn Maher) and silent but deep younger brother (Ingamar Christophersen), sort through their own interests in the family past.
“Arcadia” goes off on so many rewarding tangents — about fractals and chaos theory, the restricted roles of aristocratic 19th-century women, the value and failings of the Romantic Movement in literature and landscape architecture — it puts your brain through a high-intensity aerobic workout.
There’s no easy encapsulation of these debates and theories, other than to note how hard it is for mere mortals to keep up with them all, or resist doing some research later, into whatever topics have stuck to the flypaper of one’s cerebral cortex.
Stoppard’s “myriad” briefs are more exhilarating than pretentious or off-putting. And they generate organically, and brilliantly, from his engaging characters.
The Seattle Public production has a few lapses, among them Goodwin’s one-dimensional take on Lady Croom, and some stumbling comic bits that dumb down the Crooms’ mission-driven architect (played by Mike Dooly), who turns a formal garden into a Gothic rebuttal of classical beauty and order.
However, for “Arcadia” to succeed so well on such a small-scale stage, is heartening and laudable. The chance may not come again soon to see Stoppard’s glorious play, conveyed so clearly.
Misha Berson: email@example.com